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Texas: Getting Physical?

Has the Lone Star State taken the phrase “living off the fat of the land” a bit too seriously?

April 9, 2002

Has the Lone Star State taken the phrase "living off the fat of the land" a bit too seriously?

Residents of the U.S. state of Texas have a reputation for “living large” — an American phrase that emphasizes a vast appetite and an even vaster capacity to satisfy it. In Texas, they say, everything is bigger — from the steaks to the pick-up trucks.

That “largeness” also applies to Texans themselves, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In a study of obesity conducted by the CDC in 1998, Texas ranked seventh in the entire United States for the percentage of its citizens who were obese or overweight. It’s a ranking that Texas shares with four other U.S. states — including Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia.

In the same report, the number of Americans who are considered obese is already pegged at a whopping 55% — or 97.1 million people. But Texas goes that national average two full percentage points better, with 57% of its citizens designated as obese or overweight.

Texas educators think that they’ve got the solution to the state’s outsized problem. Their motto? “Get them while they’re young.”

The Texas Board of Education voted in March 2002 to reinstate physical education classes in the state’s elementary schools. The board even set a minimum requirement of over two hours per week of jumping jacks, push-ups and sit-up to help young Texans stay fit — and thin.

The state’s Health Commisssioner, Eduardo Sanchez, heartily approved the new rules. He observed that Texas had “a childhood obesity” problem — and that school was just the place to start attacking it.

The six-year hiatus for gym class in Texas was no accident, however. The poor academic achievement of U.S. students has been a hot-button issue in the country’s elections since the 1960s — and never more so than during the last decade. President George W. Bush even campaigned on the promise that he would be the “education president.”

Schools in the United States — including Texas, when President Bush was its governor — took the hint. In 1995, the Texas Board of Education eliminated physical education classes in favor of a greater emphasis on subjects such as mathematics and language skills.

Education was — and still remains — a large issue for Americans. No one wants a child that’s not properly schooled. Yet, U.S. schools have now decided that one pervasive societal problem — namely, obesity — is now somehow “larger” than the skills that are probed in standardized testing.

Based on the Texas experience, it seems that there is no way to keep students’ physical fitness and their math and language skills at a high level. The school days must be too short to cram all those things in.